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Somewhere in the Center: Day 2

This is the second part of a two-part long form travel essay. If you haven’t read the first part, you can do so here. Onward.

Part Two: Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

I wake to the eastern sun peaking in through the window. Cool drops of water populate the grasses below the lime tree just outside. The tree strains under its bounty. Over the next two weeks, these limes will accent many a gin and tonic. But before I get too far ahead – we have arrived. The Drakensberg. It is heart-breakingly beautiful here. Endless views, meaningful work at hand, life at a human pace. You can unravel and untangle yourself in a place like this. It is precisely enough and exactly what is necessary.

Rolling green hills tentatively unfurl off into the distance, as if avoiding attention. The distance is where the majestic mountains grab your eye, escalating higher and higher. These are not craggy and jagged mountains. The Drakensberg consists of a series of escarpments – long cliffs – stretching south to north. A high mountain plateau sits to the west, lying flat like a tabletop. Precisely at sunset, just for a brief moment, the sun rests atop the table. I can imagine an orange waiting for the hand of God to stretch down from the heavens and pluck it off the table… if you see God as separate from yourself. Anyways, I digress.

The highest tabletop is the mountainous country of Lesotho, the entirety of which is above 4,500 feet and is surrounded by South Africa. The mountain-tabletop drops off dramatically; the escarpment falls to the east before flattening into another smaller plateau and escarpment. From west to east, the mountain gradually descends leaving behind peninsulas and pyres, towers and tables, as if hesitant to give up its ethereal view and close proximity to the heavens. Reluctantly though, the landscape finally drops into to a broad, low valley, punctuated by miniature tables as far as the eye can see. Lodges, game reserves, Zulu villages, farms, homesteads, and a snaking network of patched and rutted roads are the main signs of human settlement here. Antbear Lodge is perched into the side of a little escarpment, complete with its own miniature tabletop above. Flowing green grasses provides a subtle pattern to soften and tie together the landscape. This is the backdrop for our work.

We work in exchange for room and board. Antbear Lodge makes a point NOT to replace local workers with volunteers. As a country, South Africa struggles with unemployment and this area is no different. We are volunteers, here to do a job that makes no economic sense. I am to craft furniture for the new budget-friendly guest rooms. V is here to create a meditative labyrinth garden for guests to walk in and unwind. You cannot justify our work in a traditional business sense; there are values which cannot be distilled into a spreadsheet. Our time here is another chapter in a long saga of volunteer contributions to a truly exceptional place.

At Antbear Lodge, every piece of furniture and functional art is hand-made and unique. Each and every one: coffee tables, dining tables, side tables, doors, hinges, and handles, bed-frames, head-boards, mirrors, windows, sinks, showers, and everything in between.  Differences in woodgrain are celebrated. Knots and imperfections are highlighted and brought into focus. Time and again, I am told to let go and be creative – this is the only rule. This same advice was given to countless volunteers before me. Year after year, these expressions have added up. It is as if someone pushed pause on a grand experiment in human care and craftsmanship, paradoxically leaving everything in motion, yet fixing it in its most beautiful and expressive state. The effect is enchanting; the residual presence of the divine is somehow on display and the sacred qualities of the proverbial tree of life are retained.

Yet to do this, someone must first disconnect the tree from the source of life; you must cut the flow of the divine. You can do so with respect, or not. You can choose to shape the wood with honor for whatever power created your materials in the first place. Or not. One path leads to a unique, never seen before headboard, imbued with the care, beauty, and precisely as much of yourself as you’re willing to put into it. Give of yourself enough times and your world literally transforms. Not the world, but your world – your authenticity flows out and transforms those around you, subtly pulling them into a fuller expression and a richer experience. This is what Antbear Lodge evokes; you simply want to give all you have because it is cultivated and celebrated. This is what makes this place special, but it is not the normal way of the world.

There is the other way, the easy way. It leads you to Wal-Mart or some other sub-prime derivative of convenience, standardization, and efficiency. In this world, the only value of any interest is the kind that can be measured in spreadsheets and tallied in bank statements. It strips the world of actual value and monetizes it as an idea of value. In this world, sunsets are blocked by skyscrapers; subdivisions are named after the forests cut to make way for homes. Human beings are called human resources and consultants are hired to optimize and streamline efficiency. In this world, highways are concrete and opinions are fixed just as firmly. We are sick and yet we insist on looking outside ourselves for a cure. Maybe after you’ve paid off the interest on this month’s credit card debt and moved on to the next flavor-of-the-week necessary to keep up with the Jones’, you may just pause long enough to allow boredom in. Resist the urge to fill the void and you may see your day-to-day reality for what it is: a distraction from what truly matters.

Actually, never mind. Hold the lecture. Step off the soapbox. Maybe you are meant to do what you’re doing, to be who you’re being. Who am I to tell you how to make sense of your world? You choose. You already have and will do so anyways. Paradoxically, this is both the uninhibited joy and inescapable burden of living. You are choosing, by your way of being, how best to express your inner divinity, whether or not you even realize it. You are sacred, whether or not you let yourself believe it. A profound depth resides within you, yet it weaves its way through us all. You are free to heed or to ignore this subtlety of life.

You see, I happened upon this work in the Drakensberg. It was not planned, nor could it have been. I didn’t decide to come here; it was the other way around. Most who come to volunteer at Antbear Lodge are looking for something. The wood gives them a way to express it, whatever it is. Volunteers are given wood thrown away by others; what is typically discarded is valued here. I am given a piece and offered advice on how to shape it, but it is clear the end result is of my own making. I came here not knowing what it is I seek, but I discover I am a creator, one of many. In each moment, I decide – consciously or not, by myself or together with others – how to shape the furniture and what I think of it. It’s not what I’m making or doing that matters, it’s how I’m making or doing it. Creation happens in the present.

They say – whoever they are – to live every day like it’s your last. This is a pretty overwhelming directive; how does one do this? It is hard to know for sure. It is, however, incredibly easy to be closed to the present moment, missing the ever-present beat of your own heart. It is easy to pass the time planning for your future or reviewing your past, as if either exist anywhere but in your head. It is easy to miss honest connections and real-time exchanges with others.

I’ve missed so much in my attempts to arrange my surroundings into something suitable to my preferences, as if I actually knew what I wanted. I was closed to opportunities. I feared the unknown. I gave my internal critic power over me. But it was easy; everyone else was doing it. What would happen if we all did something different? Something a bit closer to who we are, a bit uncomfortable in its proximity to our depth. What would the world be like?

Let us find the courage to be uncompromisingly present – to be alive as a human being right now, for better and for worse. Let us open up, past our habitual closures, beyond our fears. Let us learn how to reflect outside a piece of what we know we are inside. Let us feel a little bit crazy as we deviate from the norm and align our being with what truly matters. Let our hands grow calloused and worn, as we choose yet again to forgive. We are creators, but only for the moment. The choice is always in the present. Life begins now. It always has and always will.

Really quickly though, let’s have one more gin and tonic before we start. We can start all of this tomorrow, right?

Epilogue: Irish Hills, Michigan, USA

For me, practically speaking, this was a journey to fully share in an experience that I sensed wouldn’t last, no matter how hard I tried to make it nor how much I tried to want it. It was speaking my truth, even when my meaning was misunderstood, twisted, or rejected. It was pursuing my center, despite all the invitations to go elsewhere. It was accepting myself wholly, with all my radiant features and my vitriolic flaws too. The path is still not clear, nor do the maps make sense to what I find on the ground.  And that, I believe, is the point: This is my journey; nobody else is walking my unique path. We each will find our own way, in our own time. We will walk with others for a time; we will walk alone sometimes. Perhaps this is why we’re here, wherever we may be. We will repeat these cycles until the end of time. Somewhere in the center lies the answer to all our questions.

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